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Stephen Nell is a rugby writer based in Cape Town and works primarily for the Die Burger newspaper. He has been contributing to ESPNscrum since 2005.
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Springboks primed for Lions challenge
Stephen Nell
March 17, 2009

South African rugby's playing resources are looking in rude health as the Super 14 campaign gathers momentum.

With the Sharks and Bulls both getting off to flyers in the competition, and the Stormers finding their feet with a 56-18 thumping of the Lions at the weekend, South Africa are realistically looking at the confidence boost of success in the Southern Hemisphere regional competition prior to the visit by the British and Irish Lions.

Realistically, South Africa have the depth to field two highly competitive line-ups against Ian McGeechan's tourists. They may even be able to go through the Lions series without having to hand anybody a Test debut, which is a further pointer to experienced depth.

South African players are increasingly also realising the overseas-based experience is not everything it's cracked up to be, with the comfortable lifestyle on their own shores and the lure of playing in the Green and Gold still strong counters to the Euro and Pound.

The latest example of a player deciding to return home is Springbok hooker Tiaan Liebenberg, following in the footsteps of national captain John Smit and lock Victor Matfield.

To date, South Africa have been fortunate with injuries in the Super 14. Matfield, Bryan Habana and Conrad Jantjes have all been injured at stages, but have not been seriously crocked. Fly-half Ruan Pienaar hurt his knee this past weekend but will be back before the business end of the Super 14.

The country's leading sports scientist, Tim Noakes, did warn towards the latter stages of last year about the demands on South African players taking a physical toll this year.

However, leading Springboks, with the exception perhaps of Habana and Pienaar, whose goalkicking has been poor, have been in good form.

Scrum-half Fourie du Preez has been an absolute general at the Bulls, reinforcing the view that he is the world's top half-back.

His team mate Pierre Spies is back to his best and, like Sharks No.8 Ryan Kankowski, is capable of beating backline players with his pace.

Bakkies Botha has also been in formidable form in the Bulls' second row. South Africans are way too knowledgable about the game not to respect Paul O'Connell's immense performances for Ireland, but continue to be confident Botha and Matfield can front as a second-row pairing against any opponents.

A complicated task is to weigh up the different competitions in the Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere. Many commentators on the game pass judgement based on limited information and footage.

I will seek not to fall into that trap as a number of South Africans playing in the Northern Hemisphere have told me the focus on set-piece, in particular the scrums, are a strength of the game there. The game is slower, but that is brought on by the conditions and not necessarily a reflection on the players.

The Six Nations does make for compelling viewing, but the form for the most of England and Scotland should be a concern to Lions supporters. Sure, England had a good result against France, but should be judged on their overall contribution, which remains unimpressive.

Outside perhaps prop Andrew Sheridan they don't currently have players that will scare South Africa or New Zealand. The same applies to the Scots. Of course, they have Mike Blair, but he's no Du Preez.

Ireland and Wales are a different story. Brian O'Driscoll may not have the pace of yesteryear, but South Africa won't be kidding themselves about the heaps of experience and knowledge he has stowed up.

Welsh No.8 Andy Powell looks like a man you can take into battle. He may not have the explosive athleticism of Spies or Kankowski, but is very effective.

The class of wing Shane Williams is well documented. I don't think he is the best player in the world, but neither was Habana when he got the IRB award in 2007. What Williams has, though, is try-scoring ability. Fullback Lee Byrne also looks a fine player, as are the two Welsh fly-halves Stephen Jones and James Hook. Others that always catch the eye are loosehead prop Gethin Jenkins and flank Ryan Jones.

On the Irish side the lock pairing of O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan command a healthy respect and one can't help but always be impressed by Ronan O'Gara.

If I were in the Lions' shoes I would seek to pick mostly established combinations and forge them into a strong unit prior to the first test in Durban. The six games prior to that give McGeechan the opportunity.

McGeechan knows that and his impressive track record in South Africa is testimony to the fact that the Lions are in very good hands.

South Africa's obvious weaknesses are potentially that they have identified a fly-half in Pienaar whose goalkicking has been extremely patchy in the early stages of the Super 14. They don't have another goalkicker in their designated starting line-up.

Anybody remember what happened in 1997, when South Africa scored a lot more tries than the Lions, but still lost the series?

A good Super 14 may also serve as a confidence-booster, but it can take a toll with injuries and militate against fostering a sense of cohesion, which will not be a problem for the Lions under McGeechan's astute guidance.

If ever there was a year where it might be handy for South Africa to under-perform in the Super 14, this would have been it. Coach Peter de Villiers might secretly be hoping the Sharks and Bulls don't go too far, as it will give him less time with the players.

As such, the first Test in Durban is a massive one for the Lions. It will probably represent their best chance given South Africa's circumstances. The Lions certainly don't want to have to come from behind in a series where the only guarantee is that tourists' lungs will burn like hell when they face marauding South African forwards in decisive Tests on the Highveld.

Below I have included a potential first-choice Springbok line-up with a back-up in each position in brackets. It demonstrates the quality depth in South African rugby.

You decide yourself how the Lions will measure up.

How South Africa line up:
Conrad Jantjes (Stefan Terblanche)
JP Pietersen (Odwa Ndungane)
Adrian Jacobs (Jaque Fourie)
Jean de Villiers (Frans Steyn)
Bryan Habana (Jongi Nokwe)
Ruan Pienaar (Peter Grant)
Fourie du Preez (Ricky Januarie)
Pierre Spies (Ryan Kankowski)
Juan Smith (Jean Deysel)
Schalk Burger (Luke Watson)
Victor Matfield (Andries Bekker)
Bakkies Botha (Danie Rossouw)
John Smit (Jannie du Plessis)
Bismarck du Plessis (Schalk Brits)
Beast Mtawarira (Gurthrö Steenkamp)

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